How to be both by Ali Smith

”       hello all the new bones
hello all the old
hello all the everything
to be
made and
both ”

Style and substance can be a formidable combination. In literature, most novelists achieve some kind of a balance between the two. However poetic writers can be light in terms of their content because their readers will make allowances for them. This text of two halves tests this theory to its limits.

The first narrative is situated in the Google Maps present of Sky News weather presenters. It is quite a moving tale, which bubbles with verisimilitude. The reader is never bored, but occasionally a feeling of being manipulated does arise. Gratitude for the entertainment provided does derive primarily from the style of Smith.

The second story about an artist totters over the brink. Pretentiousness oozes from the text, while ennui starts to flow from a slackening pace. Art about art is not original and there seems to be some special kind of credibility gap. Nevertheless, Smith perseveres gamely to the end, secure in the faith which her remarkable style lends her.





T.S. Eliot: a Short Biography by John Worthen

This odd book about an odd man employed an eccentric technique to generate a thought-provoking biography. John Worthen leaned heavily on the diaries of Virginia Woolf to defend the reputation of her celebrated friend. Her antipathy to the wife of T.S. Eliot means that the great poet has a really sympathetic portrayal.

Relying too much on the brilliant Woolf as a witness has its risks. Her own instability means that she may not have been the most consistent judge of character. And her literary elitism could have led her to a bias towards the conservative American. Further, she might well have been afraid, jealous or resentful of others who occupied the sick role she shared.

Fortunately, Worthen was aware of the limitations of his effort. Like Eliot, he knew that “No one can be understood.” As a result, those who appreciate poetry can turn back to fragments of the poems:

“And I…must borrow every changing shape

To find expression- dance dance

Dance like a dancing bear,

Whistle like a parrot, chatter like an ape;

Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance.”

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Mario Cuomo

Jeremy Corbyn has clearly realised the power of the poem. At Glastonbury, he harnessed Shelley to inspire his audience. While the Conservative Party has been slow to form an awkward coalition with the DUP, the Labour leader has been quick to communicate his message of hope with large numbers of people.

It is uncertain if Corbyn will ever ascend to the summit of politics in the UK. However, he has already confounded a great many of his critics. Along the way, he has revealed a love of reading. His passion for Joyce made several people sit up.

If governing is a prosaic activity, does it have to be a fraudulent one? Is it possible for politicians to craft narratives which will take us to a fairer future? Will we continue to be led by Machiavellian monsters like Trump and Putin? The art of political studies is to live in the world of the possible. This does not mean we should be cynical, defeatist or neutral. Nonetheless, it does imply we must avoid making predictions.

Choruses from The Rock by T.S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot can be perceived as an elitist poet. His work often seems remote from the mundane aspects of life. This is in part because of his explicit religious commitment. However, the complex language which the poet employed is also something of a barrier to the understanding of many readers.

Nevertheless, one of his remarkable creations breaks with the conventions of his famous poems. This specific work was composed during the Hungry Thirties. Eliot might not have endured the horrors of unemployment, but by 1934 he had been involved in sectors like publishing and banking. These prosaic experiences could have helped him to appreciate some of the anguish associated with the Great Depression.  He wrote:

“The lot of man is ceaseless labour,

Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,

Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.”

Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice

“The New Year comes with bombs, it is too late

To dose the dead with honourable intentions:

If you have honour to spare, employ it on the living;

The dead are dead as Nineteen-Thirty-Eight.”


This remarkable poem ultimately deserves the status of a masterpiece. It is able to mix the personal with the political. Written during the course of an international crisis, it conveys the complex contradictions of the time.

The poet is unafraid to tackle the perplexing issue of nationalism. In addition, he mentions great philosophers like Plato, Hegel and Marx. However, he avoids making excessive commitments to any specific school of analysis. Freud gets a fleeting look in, but the writer is prepared to accept the seeming inadequacy of the tools at his disposal.

It is important to note that the poet is unafraid of the vulgar, the profane and the ordinary. He does not dwell on a cloud or preach from a tower. His sympathies, his fears, and his capacities are tilted towards the world that there is.

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

“Our sweet illusions are half of them conscious illusions, like effects of colour that we know to be made up of tinsel, broken glass, and rags.”

This Gothic novella by Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) is a fascinating read. It is a radical departure from her typical realism. Beautifully written, the compelling narrative wastes no time. When the story gathers momentum, the writer allows the plot to unfold without excessive description.

The central character suffers considerable emotional torment. Nevertheless, the text is composed cleverly so that the reader is not overly affected by all the anguish. This makes it a suitable Christmas book for people who want to be distracted from the commercial excesses of the season.

Evans put this tale together from a male perspective. This is interesting because she used a masculine pen name in order to guarantee a serious reception for her work. One message of the chilling story is that tyrannical individuals should not be given emotional support. Hence Evans injected some shrewd psychology into her attempt to convey horror.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

This elegant text is a strange tribute to Dmitri Shostakovich. The brilliant composer had a fascinating life, convulsed by extreme ideologies. Although the brief book is pessimistic and depressing, it expresses several emotions well.

However, the history covered by the author is a complex one. This means that the reader is not necessarily persuaded by all the Cold War politics on display. The condemnation of George Bernard Shaw jars, while the attack on Pablo Picasso strikes a false note.

The most interesting issue is arguably the lack of attention given to the Siege of Leningrad. This could have been explored in significant depth. What precisely did the great composer think about a hungry orchestra playing a symphony of his? Instead, the reader sometimes has to subsist on a dull diet of clever nationalist phrases:

“To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic. That was why the words Soviet Russia were a contradiction in terms.”